A House Divided | Proper 5

Mark 3:20-35

20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”

22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”

23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (CEB)

A House Divided

This text has always made Christians worry, and maybe for good reason. We’re afraid of the unforgivable sin of offending the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we’re nervous because we don’t know what offending the Holy Spirit is. I mean, what if we do it accidentally? Would God really not forgive us? Would God really send us to Hell because of an accident? I mean, it sounds kind of harsh. I’ve had people come to me and ask what it is because they don’t understand what it is. They wanted me to identify it for them so they could make sure they didn’t do the big oops and wind up in a situation where they won’t be forgiven.

Whenever Jesus says something that we find confusing, we have to look at the context. It’s something Rev. Dr. Mike Rynkiewich and I are teaching in our Bible study classes on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday nights. Context matters. It can inform those difficult-to-understand snippets, especially when we read the snippet as if it’s not related to the stuff before and after it.

We know things had been going on before this text because Mark tells us, “Jesus entered a house. A crowed gathered again…” (c.f. Mark 3:20 CEB). That word again tells us that this wasn’t the first time a crowd had gathered around Jesus. When we come across a word like again, wise students of the Bible will turn the pages backward to check out the previous instances of whatever happened, and maybe the other stuff that Jesus has been up to as well.

When we look at Mark chapters 1, 2, and 3, we see that Jesus was baptized by John, who announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB). Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness. Then, he started preaching, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (1:14 CEB). Note that Jesus didn’t say, “Dig in your heels” but “Change your hearts and lives, and trust…” He called his disciples to follow him, too.

Then, in one day, he healed a demon-possessed man on the Sabbath while in the Synagogue at Capernaum, he healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and that evening he healed multiple people of sickness and demon-possession because everyone who knew a sick person was bringing them to Jesus for healing. This was the first big crowd.

Later, Jesus healed a man with a skin disease who blabbed so much about being healed (directly disobeying Jesus’ stern order to keep quiet) that Jesus could hardly enter a town. So, he stayed out in deserted places, but people still went out to him. So, more crowds gathered. Many crowds gathered.

In Chapter 2, Jesus went back to his home in Capernaum, and when people heard it, a crowd packed his house. So many people gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. So a few enterprising people tore a hole in Jesus’ roof to lower their sick friend down to him. But first, Jesus forgave the man of his sins, which annoyed some legal experts who were also present in Jesus’ house. To prove that he had authority to forgive sins, he healed the paralyzed man before the legal expert’s eyes.

Later, another crowd gathered near him at the lake, and he taught them. That’s when he invited Levi, the tax collector, to follow him, and he went to eat at Levi’s house alongside many other tax collectors and known sinners. You see, everyone KNEW these people were sinners. They had no doubt that these people were sinners. But Jesus did this incredibly unexpected thing and ate with them. The Pharisees saw it as a violation of purity laws to have fellowship with a sinner of any kind. Jesus was breaking the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law of Moses.

Jesus and his disciples also picked grains of wheat on the Sabbath and ate them. And, the Pharisees asked why Jesus was breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law. The Law said that no work should be done but doesn’t specify the nature of the work. Jesus and his disciples are essentially gleaning, which was legal. So, the question is whether or not it was legal on the Sabbath to pick grain, not in order to harvest but to satisfy hunger. The interpretation that Jesus made of the Law is that it was okay for hungry people to feed themselves. The Pharisees disagreed.

Next, in chapter 3, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Because this action of healing a person violated their interpretation of the Law, the Pharisees and supporters of Herod went out and sought a way to destroy Jesus.

All of this context points to what happens in the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus entered his house and a crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him or his followers to even eat bread. His family had heard all about it, and they were fit to be tied. They decided it was time for an intervention because Jesus was obviously out of his mind. The word used is a compound word made up of out of and to make stand. So the way they said someone was nuts back then was to say they stood out of their self. (Now, the next time someone tells you you’re outstanding, you’ll wonder if it’s a compliment).

Not only is Jesus’ family coming to get a hold of him, but the legal experts have mobilized in their effort to destroy him. They’ve sent a contingent from Jerusalem, and they were spreading the charge that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, which is a name that means Lord of the Flies. Jesus, they say, throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.

So, what we see here is a group of religious people who held to a certain interpretation of Scripture, and they were so adamant about that particular interpretation of Scripture that they were willing to say anything to denounce Jesus and destroy his reputation.

The thing is, the Pharisees and legal experts had seen with their own eyes the things Jesus did. They saw him heal people. They were drawn to him, too, that’s why they were at his house when he healed the crippled man. According to their own understanding of the Law, God doesn’t listen to sinners. Only someone who was on God’s side could do the things Jesus did (c.f. John 3:2). In fact, these signs were proof that Jesus was a prophet of God. The legal experts and Pharisees knew that. But, now that they felt the need to defend their interpretations and conclusions about the Scriptures and religious life, they actively attempted to make Jesus and his work into something Satanic.

So, Jesus called everyone together and told a parable. The first part is logic, “How can Satan throw Satan out? A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for” (Mk. 3:23-26 CEB).

The second part is Jesus describing himself as the one who walked into the strong person’s house and tied him up so he could burglarize it. Remember what John the Baptist said back in chapter one: “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB)? Jesus is stronger than Satan, and that’s why he’s able to throw demons out of people who were possessed by them. He’s not Beelzubul in disguise. Jesus is essentially saying, I tied Beelzebul up and started stealing his stuff. Beelzebul owned some people, I stole them back.

Now, we’re at the part that can worry us, and maybe should worry us. It should especially worry us when we think that we know God’s will so perfectly that we can map out the movements of the Spirit, that we know what lines God will never cross, when we know exactly who and what God accepts and who and what God rejects. Jesus said, “‘I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” Mk. 3:28-29 CEB). Mark lets us know that Jesus said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.’” (Mk. 3:30 CEB).

The unforgivable sin happens when we see the work of the Holy Spirit with our own eyes, or hear of it with our own ears, yet because we don’t like it—because it doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions and interpretations—we identify it as the work of Satan. The detractors of Jesus saw and heard of his healings, but because certain matters of his Biblical interpretation didn’t jive with their interpretations, they labeled the work of the Holy Spirit as evil. That kind of arrogance can lead any of us to mislabel what God is doing as the work of Satan. Whether the sin is eternally unforgivable is another matter of debate because Jesus used hyperbole all the time. My understanding of the matter is that if we repent of that sin and join in with the Holy Spirit’s work, then God will forgive us.

Now, in the next few years, our church, The United Methodist Church, has some stuff to figure out about human sexuality and whether people who are homosexual are going to be fully welcome among us. And it’s not going to be easy. It was apparent at Annual Conference in Indianapolis due to some of the resolutions we discussed and did not pass. It has been made apparent at several other annual Conferences that have taken place this year based on resolutions they have passed or failed to pass. Lines are being drawn and people are fighting for their understanding of the issues of human sexuality, and for their interpretations of the Scriptures.

But I want to offer a pastoral word of caution. Before we withdraw into our already-firm conclusions and our personal Biblical interpretations, before we start calling one side or the other evil or wrong or sinful—whether aloud or in our internal monologue—I caution each of us to be patient. I hope we’ll listen to perspectives that differ from our own. I hope we’ll open our hearts and minds to see where that unpredictable Spirit of God is blowing.

There was a time when the church was segregated by race, but now all are supposed to be welcome. That’s what our baptismal & membership vows claim. (I think we still have some work to do on that one). There was a time when women were not allowed to be ordained or hold certain other leadership positions in the church, but now we ordain women and every leadership position is open. (I think we still have some work to do on that one, too).

We don’t know what’ll happen at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 or how we’ll move forward as a church. Three plans have been set forth for consideration, and I encourage you to read them. I urge you to speak and, most importantly, I urge you to listen with empathetic ears. What I believe, wholeheartedly, is that if we pay attention—not for that moment when our side wins the debate—but if we pay attention to the movements and urgings of the Holy Spirit and see other people as beloved of God, we’ll move into the next decade and beyond as The United Methodist Church.

But if we fight amongst ourselves in a civil war and try to throw each other out; if we rebel against each other and are divided, then we’re done for. We won’t endure.

When Jesus’ family showed up at the door to his house, they couldn’t even get inside. So people told him, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.” (Mk. 3:32 CEB). The thing is, when Jesus replied “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mark 3:33 CEB), he didn’t reject his family. He broadened his family. He made it bigger. Jesus said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3:34-35 CEB). Perhaps we can discern God’s will by listening and speaking, praying and worshipping, loving and seeking – together.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Born | Trinity Sunday

John 3:1-17

1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (CEB)

Born

The Sunday after the Day of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, and it’s the day we celebrate one God in three Persons. While neither the John nor the Isaiah texts that we just read say anything direct or specific about God as Trinity, they are important texts in our reflection upon God’s nature as Three-in-One. The John 3 text hints at God as Trinity with Jesus the Son teaching Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God, and his own work on earth. The Son speaks of the Spirit and the Father to a leader of the Jews.

Nicodemus, himself, is a curious figure. From early on, church teachers and theologians have both lambasted and praised him depending on the teacher’s agenda. During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin compared Protestants who were living in Catholic France to Nicodemus who, as a secret disciple, came to Jesus by night. The Nicodemites, as Calvin called them, were secretly Protestants at heart but Catholic in appearance because they were afraid of the Catholic authorities.

Later, Søren Kierkegaard, described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus, but too cowardly from fear of his own people to become a follower.

Neither of those views of Nicodemus are accurate. Even though Nicodemus came to Jesus by night that first time, he did stand up among his peers and call them out when they wanted to arrest Jesus without giving him a fair hearing as the law required (John 7:44-53). Ironically, the leaders argued that no one among the leaders had believed Jesus to be the Christ except for the crowds who didn’t know God’s law. That’s when Nicodemus stood up and reminded them that the law doesn’t allow them to judge someone without first hearing them to see what they’re about. But his peers didn’t want to listen to Nicodemus and accused him of being a Jesus fanboy from Galilee because the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee as Jesus did. Later, Nicodemus brought the burial spices and helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial with Joseph of Arimathea (c.f. John 19:38-41).

Like most of us, it seems that Nicodemus was a work in progress. Painting him as a fearful coward who never stood up for Jesus against his peers or who never made the leap to true discipleship doesn’t fit his whole story. Nicodemus was someone who saw that Jesus had come from God, and who went to Jesus in order to investigate what his faith told him about Jesus. It’s really not fair for us to judge Nicodemus too harshly. He might have been confounded by what Jesus taught him, but he was trying to understand.

Every Trinity Sunday I’m reminded of the inadequacy of human language when speaking about God. One of the texts for today is from Romans 8, where Paul goes so far as to say that we’re children of God and cry, “Abba! Father!” In one sense, this cry signifies the confidence that we Christians have in turning to God. In another sense, the cry “Abba! Father!” reveals that the desperate longing, eager expectation, and grasping hope of humankind can only be expressed in comparison to the cry of a small child. Small children don’t know how to express why they want their mommy or daddy. But they feel that mommy and daddy are where they need to be.

We believe that the One God is revealed to the world and exists as Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But it’s difficult to explain that concept in human language because human language is incapable of defining God. I studied the theology of the Holy Trinity in seminary because it is an essential dogma of the Christian Faith. Still, people have difficulty understanding it. In fact, we can’t know all there is to know about the Trinity, because God is unfathomable and indefinable. There is no end to who God is. No one could ever learn all there is to know about God. When we say that God is eternal, we mean more than how long God has existed or will exist. God is also eternally indefinable. God the Trinity is a mystery. We can only know what has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ, the Son, and that often times, just as with Nicodemus, we have difficulty grasping God and God’s work in our minds.

The text from Isaiah provides a powerful account of Isaiah’s vision of God sitting exalted on the throne. At this vision, Isaiah can only speak the words, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB). One of the seraphs touched Isaiah’s mouth with a live coal and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” (Isaiah 6:7 CEB). Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord and was able to respond to it.

Isaiah was almost completely paralyzed with a sense of God’s power and his own inadequacy by his vision of God, and rightly so! Even the seraphim had to shield their faces from God’s majesty. The act of cleansing not only restored the sinful Isaiah to wholeness, but also released his power to hear God’s speech and, in turn, to speak God’s words to a sinful people. The prophet had been released from sin so that he could be the bearer of God’s word. His being able to hear and respond to God was not something of his own power or ability but was wholly a gift of grace from God. God enables us to hear and respond to God’s words. It’s never by our own abilities apart from God that we come to God, because all that we are is a gift from our Creator. Every breath we breathe is gift. Just like Isaiah responded, “I’m here; send me” (Isaiah 6:8b CEB). We are called to respond to God’s voice and be sent.

As Jesus taught Nicodemus, it’s through the power of the Third Person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—that we’re born from above. Many translations of the Greek Scripture translate the adverb ἄνωθεν (anothen) as again, meaning, born again. Yet, the word has multiple meanings, including above. Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about being born from above. Jesus says, “Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 CEB). We must be born of water and the Spirit.

This Son of God, the Second Person of the Divine Trinity, was sent by the Father from heaven to earth, so that God might teach us and give us life through His eternally begotten Son. The eternal Son of God took on flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary and became human. By this action, God the Son forever united human flesh with the Godhead. Humanity has been given a share in the Divine life by God’s gracious invitation.

Yet, we had to be redeemed from the power of sin and death. So God’s Son was lifted up on a cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. When the people of Israel were still wandering in the wilderness, they sinned by speaking against God and Moses. So God sent poisonous serpents against the people. They repented, and asked Moses to pray to God for them so that He would take the serpents away. The Lord told Moses to make a poisonous serpent and put it on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten by a serpent they could look at the serpent of bronze and live (c.f. Numbers 21:4-9). Jesus the Son, in whom all things were created, was killed by his own creation. He willingly gave up his life so that we might have eternal life. We have life in the cross of Christ.

One of the paradoxes of our faith is that our life comes through death. The eternal life of John 3:16 is synonymous with the birth from above of John 3:3 and 3:7. Birth from above is from believing—having faith—in the death of Jesus Christ.

Part of what we remember on Trinity Sunday is that God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity, is the one who sent His eternal Son into the world for our sake. God the Father initiated the redemptive activity of Christ. God would not remain content with a world in the process of self-destruction and enslaved to the power of sin. The divine act of love was reaching out to the unlovely creatures we had become. God’s gift of the Son is an expression of deep love. When the Son returned to the Father, the Spirit came not only to empower and teach us, but to birth us from above so we could be called children of God.

God is always acting in and among us, giving grace upon grace even to the unbelievers, so that all may come to know the love God has for us. Humanity has never merited salvation. We have never deserved to be saved. God’s grace is an unmerited, gratuitous gift. All is grace, and all is gift.

The Father loved, gave, and sent for the salvation of the world. The Divine Trinity wants all of us to live in communion with God. This communion is exemplified in our communal life together. God gives us grace when we seek grace, and has done wondrous and powerful deeds for our redemption and salvation. As God’s children, born of water and the Spirit, we share in the relationship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is perfect relationship, perfect love, and we’re invited to participate in and receive the life God offers.

But we know we aren’t perfect. The self-giving love of Jesus Christ shines on us, illuminating even the darkest pieces of our inner selves, and seeing the places within us that have been wrapped in darkness can make us want to keep hidden. It isn’t easy to let ourselves stand in the kind of light that sears and burns through the darkness. Like Nicodemus, we’re works in progress. What we can trust is that the Father didn’t send the Son to condemn us, but to save us and heal us and bring us into the light. God didn’t send the Son to judge us or toss us away, but to make us more perfectly God’s own.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Ascension | Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11

1 Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, 2 right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. 4 While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: 5 John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (CEB)

Ascension

Mothers know what it’s like to wait. Childbirth is preceded by nine months of expectation, anticipation, preparation, growth, change, worry, sometimes a touch of doubt or fear. Pregnancy, especially a first-pregnancy, is a transition time from one way of life to another. A whole new world looms before mothers (and fathers), and the life after childbirth is never quite the same as it was before. But before parents get there, (especially moms) they have the long wait of pregnancy.

Then, after childbirth, mothers (and fathers) learn even more about waiting. Waiting for that fist tooth to finally pop through so you can get a minute’s sleep again. Waiting for a child to say Mommy, because they always learn to say Daddy first. Then, waiting for the child to learn to say Daddy again because from then on out, it’s always, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mom! Momma! Mommy!” And, there’s waiting for your child to be able to find a matching shoe so you can finally leave the house now that you’re thirty minutes late. Even at age thirteen, we’re still not past that on some days.

The Day of Ascension was this past Thursday, forty days after Easter Day, but we commemorate the Ascension of Jesus Christ on a Sunday because, honestly, Sunday is the only day pastors can get most of their congregation to come to church for worship. Like the Epiphany, the Ascension is important enough that we don’t want to skip it, so we move it to a Sunday to make sure it’s covered.

The Ascension of Jesus falls in the between-time of Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost. Easter is joy and happiness. Pentecost marks a different kind of excitement as the church’s birthday and descent of the Holy Spirit. Not only does Ascension fall in a between-time, it marked the beginning of a waiting period for the Disciples. Remember, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to the disciples multiple times over forty days. He appeared in a locked room. He showed up again so Thomas could see. He was recognized after breaking bread in Emmaus. He cooked breakfast for the disciples on the beach.

Acts 1:4 suggests that Jesus may have stayed with the disciples, maybe even lived with them for part of those forty days. The Greek word used there has an uncertain meaning, in part, because it’s only used once in the New Testament. It might refer to table fellowship or gathering the disciples together. Or, it might refer to staying the night. The Common English Bible translates it as “While they were eating together,” while the New Revised Standard Version renders it, “While staying with them.”

Either way we translate the word, what’s clear is that Jesus was hanging out with the disciples a lot. The disciples had likely gotten used to resurrection-Jesus being present and continuing to teach them. Luke tells us in his Gospel that Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures about the Messiah and how repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed in his name (c.f. Luke 24:45-47). Acts 1:2-3 tells us that Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen speaking with them about God’s kingdom. And he ordered them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which the Father had promised to send upon them. The timeline of a few days from now is rather non-specific. They didn’t know the when.

But, the apostles still had questions about God’s kingdom, so they asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” (Acts 1:6 CEB).

At first, it sounds like a very earthly question, as thought the apostles were still looking forward to an earthly kingdom. And maybe it was an earthly question, in part. But the word Luke uses for restore is the same word used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament in Malachi 4:6 (*LXX 3:23) where God speaks of Elijah being sent to turn the hearts of children to parents, and the hearts of parents to children before the great and terrifying Day of the Lord comes. The Septuagint actually says “who will restore the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of people to their neighbors…” (Malachi 3:23 my translation of LXX).

So, if Luke used this word as an intentional reference to the restoration work of Elijah that was mentioned in Malachi, then the question of the apostles was about more than an earthly kingdom. It was about a kind of restoration that involved calling the people of Israel back to faithful community. A restoring of broken relationships. The importance of restored human relationships is one of the things Jesus preached about often (c.f. Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 5:20-26, 18:15-17; Mark 11:25). After all, the work of Jesus Christ on earth included restoring the human race to God and human beings to each other.

It seems like the apostles wanted to know if this restoration was about to take place. After all, what other work is left for Jesus to do? And Jesus responds by telling them not to worry about the timing of things. Instead of being concerned about the timing of things to come, the apostles will be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In essence, Jesus tells the apostles that his work will now continue through them. The Ascension is the transition of Christ’s ministry from Jesus, himself, to the apostles and those who will follow them. The gist of Jesus’s message to the apostles is this: Don’t worry about the time, you’ve got a job to do.

Then, suddenly, Jesus was taken up into heaven. There’s no indication that the Ascension was something the apostles who were with Jesus expected when it happened. One moment Jesus was walking and talking with them, the next moment he was zooming into the clouds. Luke notes that the apostles “were watching” as he was lifted up. They were staring toward heaven when two men in white robes suddenly appeared beside them and asked a pointed question: Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 CEB).

First, it’s worth noting that these two men in white robes make several appearances in Luke’s writings. In the account of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah show up and talk with Jesus about his departure, which is literally Exodus in Greek.

Later, two men in gleaming bright clothing appeared to the women at the tomb of Jesus. They also asked a rather pointed questions: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24:6-7 CEB). These men were later described as a “vision of angels” (Luke 24:23), but since the word angel means messenger, it would fit whether the men were actual angels of the heavenly kind or Moses and Elijah appearing once again. After all, they were described as men initially.

While the two men aren’t mentioned at the Ascension at the end of Luke, they do show up in Acts. And they ask questions once again. “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 CEB). It’s possible that these two men—these messengers—were Moses and Elijah prodding the apostles on.

There is a strong connection to the Ascension of Elijah in this account of the Ascension of Jesus. Forty days recalled the forty-day experiences of both Moses and Elijah. Moses was with the Lord for forty days on Mount Sinai where he neither ate nor drank (c.f. Exodus 34:28). Elijah fasted for forty days as he travelled to Mount Horeb where he experienced the theophany and heard God’s voice (c.f. 1 Kings 19:8). The forty days of post-resurrection Jesus is an echo of his forty days of fasting in the wilderness during which he was tempted (c.f. Luke 4:1-13). But these forty days after the resurrection weren’t a time of preparation for Jesus, they were a time of preparation for the apostles and the ministry they would continue after Jesus ascended.

It’s significant that the apostles saw the Lord ascend into heaven. When Elijah was about to be taken up into heaven, he asked Elisha—his disciple—what he could do for him before he was taken away. And Elisha asked for a double-share of Elijah’s spirit; twice the spirit of Elijah. Elisha’s request would be granted only if he saw Elijah being taken into heaven. That event of Elijah’s ascension—of separation from Elisha—was what allowed Elisha to receive that double-share and continue the work of Elijah.

Joshua was filled with the spirit and wisdom because Moses had laid hands on him before Moses died (c.f. Deuteronomy 34:9). It is after the departure of the leader that the followers are empowered. The apostles saw Jesus ascend, and only a few days later, the Holy Spirit rushed upon them with fire and wind. They were empowered to speak languages they hadn’t learned, and to proclaim Christ with a boldness they hadn’t known before. They were empowered to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

While Jesus was on earth, his work of healing, restoration, and proclaiming God’s Kingdom was limited by the fact that he was only one person who could encounter a limited number of people. When Jesus ascended, his followers were empowered to continue his work, and the number of people with access to the power of God’s Spirit increased exponentially.

We are now witnesses. The work of Jesus Christ is ours to continue. While the apostles would wait another ten days after the Ascension to receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, we have the Holy Spirit now. The Spirit is with us everywhere. We are Christ’s witnesses, and we have the privilege of continuing Christ’s work. We don’t have to start by traveling to the ends of the earth. We can begin right where we are.

It might also be worth noting that, while the apostles were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, the first thing they did was gather together to pray. That’s in verses 13-14. Before they did anything else, they prayed. That’s a model for us, too. We have work to do as followers of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves into business at the expense of everything else. The work of Jesus Christ includes the work of devoting ourselves to prayer. Prayer is a way of connecting to the Spirit. It’s how we prepare ourselves to receive the Spirit. Pentecost is waiting. Are we ready?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

*The Septuagint is commonly noted as LXX, which is the Roman numeral for 70. It is a translation of the Old Testament, written in Greek, which dates to the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C. Also, chapters and verses sometimes differ between English translations, the Greek Septuagint, and the original Hebrew. Malachi 4:6 in English translations, for example, is Malachi 3:23 in the Septuagint (LXX) and Malachi 3:24 in Hebrew.

Water and Blood | 6th of Easter

1 John 5:1-6

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God. Whoever loves someone who is a parent loves the child born to the parent. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: when we love God and keep God’s commandments. 3 This is the love of God: we keep God’s commandments. God’s commandments are not difficult,
4 because everyone who is born from God defeats the world. And this is the victory that has defeated the world: our faith. 5 Who defeats the world? Isn’t it the one who believes that Jesus is God’s Son?

6 This is the one who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. Not by water only but by water and blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. (CEB)

Water and Blood

I have loved astronomy since I was a kid. Something about the night sky drew my fascination. All those points of light, all the stuff that’s up there that we don’t know about. As a 9-year-old boy, I searched the skies for Halley’s Comet in late 1985 and early 1986. On January 09, 1992, the first exoplanet was discovered by radio telescope, and I was amazed that we had proof that there were other planets out there. In July of 2005, there was a flurry of excitement and controversy when three new planets were discovered in our solar system. They were later designated Dwarf Planets, and poor Pluto was downgraded with them. Now, we’re looking for the hypothetical Planet Nine.

Through my telescopes, I’ve observed the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars, Uranus, nebulae, globular star clusters, open star clusters, all kinds of stars (including the Sun), galaxies, and I’ve just peered toward the Milky Way for the heck of it to see what I could see. All the while, these new discoveries kept my eyes glued to the sky at night. That’s one of the reasons why I despise Daylight Savings Time. It makes darkness come incredibly late in the summer months, and I want to see the night sky! Even on nights I don’t have time to set up one of my telescopes, I still find myself going outside just to look up. With, perhaps, the exception of most galaxies, everything is orbiting something. Everywhere we look, gravity is at play.

All of First John’s argument is kind of like gravity. He uses the same words repetitively throughout, but the pattern of his argument doesn’t seem to be linear. In Bible study, when we looked at texts from First John, I noted that his argument seems to loop and circle back on itself. Like the pull of gravity, the same things keep coming around. At times, it can be frustrating to grasp John’s point. At the same time, within that circular argumentation, there is a discernable progression in what John writes. But you kind of have to search for it.

John starts off chapter five by mentioning those who are born of God, and he ties that with belief and love. First, we should note that being born of God is a theme found in the Gospel of John as well. Part of John’s prologue says, “The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God” (John 1:11-13 CEB). A little farther into the Gospel of John, we find mention of being born of water and the Spirit (3:5) and being born anew or from above (3:3, 7), and being born of the Spirit (3:6, 8).

According to the epistle, believing that Jesus is the Christ is proof that this birth from God has occurred. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God” (1 John 5:1a CEB). Now, that word, Christ, is something we hear a lot. Not all of it in a pleasant or religious context. But, sometimes I wonder if we understand what it means and how it applies to Jesus. It’s important to understand this because, if we’re going to say we believe in Jesus as the Christ, we probably need to know what the Christ is and what the word means.

Christ comes from the Greek word Χριστὸς (Christos), and that is a translation of a Hebrew word (‎מְשִׁ֥יחַ) Meshiach that’s translated into English as both Messiah and Anointed. But anointed is what the words Messiah and Christ actually mean. You might remember that the kings of Israel were not crowned as kings as they are in much of Western European culture. Instead, they were anointed with oil.

Samuel anointed Saul as King over Israel (1 Samuel 10:1). David was anointed three times. First, Samuel anointed him as king in place of Saul (1 Samuel 16:13). Then, the tribe of Judah officially anointed David as their king (2 Samuel 2:4). He ruled for seven and a half years as Judah’s king before the rest of the tribes anointed him as king over all Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).

When King Saul was running around the countryside trying to kill David, we often read that David referred to Saul as the Lord’s Anointed. The word he used there was Messiah (‎מְשִׁ֥יחַ). David called Saul “The LORD’s Messiah” (c.f. 1 Samuel 24:6,10, 26:9,11,16,23; 2 Samuel 1:14,16) but, in that case, it’s always translated into English as Anointed. So, the only way for Jesus to properly be called Christ or Messiah was for him to be anointed. But, there’s only one place in the New Testament where Jesus was anointed with oil, and that was when Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, anointed him with perfumed oil and wiped his feet with her hair (c.f. Mark 14:8; John 11:2, 12:3). The reason we call Jesus the Messiah and Christ is because he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. The Spirit came down on him and God declared Jesus to be God’s Son (c.f. Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34).

So, when we say that we believe Jesus is the Christ, we’re saying that we believe Jesus is the one who was expected by the prophets and anointed by God with the power of the Holy Spirit in order to redeem us and heal us from the brokenness of sin.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” This birth from God not only points to our relationship with God, but our relationship with Jesus and each other. Since all believers are children of God and it’s assumed that believers love God, we also love each other. We’re family. If we’re all children of the same parent, then we’re family.

Verse two kind of throws us for a weird gravitational loop. Earlier in the epistle, John defined love as something that is active on behalf of others, not merely kind speech. He also strongly suggested that our actions toward others are a kind of proof of our love for God. But here in verse 2, John flipped it around. The proof of our love for each other—the children of God—is in our love for God and in keeping God’s commandments.

Of course, the question we need to ask is, What commandment do we have to follow? John stated the commandment back in chapter three: Believe in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other (c.f. 3:23). It’s one commandment in two, absolutely inseparable, parts.

This argument is swinging back around again.

In chapter four, John wrote, “This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also” (1 John 4:21 CEB). In verse 5:2, as we already know, John told us that our love for God proves our love for each other. The point of this, for John, is that we cannot love God without loving each other, and we cannot love each other without loving God. To love one requires us to love the other. There is no possibility of separating love for God from love for each other, or love for each other from love for God. The nature of love, itself, prevents it.

I think we just completed an orbit.

If we lack love for others—If what we think of as love doesn’t move beyond words or thoughts—it ought to nudge us to do some self-examination of our faith. To love God is to keep God’s commandments, and keeping God’s commandments isn’t a burden. Loving our sisters and brothers is not difficult for those whose lives have been transformed by the love God has for us. Those who have been reborn keep God’s commandments easily. We believe, and we love (yet remember that love requires action for it to genuinely be love).

What’s more, everyone who is born of God defeats the world. Remember that the world is often described in terms of opposition to God because of sin. It is because of the sickness of sin, the disease of rebellion against God, that the world stands in opposition. Instead of caring for each other, the world refuses to share. Instead of lifting others up, the world pushes them down. Instead of welcoming immigrants and treating them the same way we treat citizens—AS THE SCRIPURES DEMAND (c.f. Leviticus 19:10, 33-34, 25:35; Numbers 15:14-16)—we tell them there’s no room for them.

Read it anyway you want in light of current events, but I’m not making a political statement here, I’m making a statement of faith about what God requires of God’s people.

We love the story of Ruth, yet I think we forget that she was a Moabite immigrant living in Bethlehem. Deuteronomy says, “…Moabites can’t belong to the LORD’s assembly. Not even the tenth generation of such people can belong to the LORD’s assembly, as a rule,” (Deuteronomy 23:3 CEB). Yet, Ruth’s great-grandson was David, the King, and he was only four generations removed from his immigrant, Moabite great-grandmother.

When we love as those who are born of God, we defeat all that selfish, destructive, fear-filled nonsense. Our faith in a God who loves defeats the world. Our faith in Jesus as the Christ and God’s Son defeats the world. Because those who believe in these things exhibit love as God exhibits love: through the action of giving ourselves for others.

Verse six probably begins a new section of John’s argument, but it speaks to John’s firm belief in who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do as Christ. “This is the one who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. Not by water only but by water and blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:6 CEB). Water likely represents birth and rebirth at baptism. Blood points to the humanity Jesus shares with us, and his sacrificial death for us. Water and blood flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross.

The Spirit is present here with us now, moving and living in and among us. In that sense, the Spirit testifies through the disciples of Jesus Christ. The Spirit testifies through us, by our loving actions for those around us. That idea is profound enough, I think, to give us pause. We should consider whether our belief in Jesus Christ and our actions align. That circular argument has come around again like planets orbiting a star. Faith, love, being born of God, being family to each other, keeping God’s commandments, and defeating the sin-sick world: they all orbit the gravitational center that is Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

1 John 3:16-24

16 This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care– how can the love of God remain in him? 18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 The person who keeps his commandments remains in God and God remains in him; and this is how we know that he remains in us, because of the Spirit that he has given to us. (CEB)

Action and Truth

How do we know love? It’s a question Tevye asks his wife Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. After their second daughter makes her own marital match rather than following the tradition of marriages being arranged, a distraught Tevye asks Golde if she loves him. After all, the first time they met each other was on their wedding day. Their parents told them they would love each other in time but, because their daughters keep finding love before marriage, Tevye needs to know if his marriage to Golde has resulted in love. So he asks Golde if she loves him.

First, she calls him a fool, but he persists and asks the question again: “Do you love me.” Then, Golde says, “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked your cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?” But that’s not the answer Tevye wants. He wants to know, so he asks again, “Do you love me?”

Golde thinks about it, asking herself, “Do I love him?” And her answer is: “For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Tevye responds, excitedly, “Then you love me!” like it’s an accusation. And, Golde concedes, “I suppose I do.” Then Tevye replies, “And I suppose I love you, too.” Then, they sing together, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”

How do we know love? Like Golde and Tevye, John the Elder tells us we know love because of the actions of God—the things God does—on our behalf. It’s not because God said, I love you or because God said Hey, dear little humans, this is what love is…, and gave us an explanation. Instead, we know what love is because Jesus laid down his life for us. In the actions of Jesus Christ, God has acted lovingly toward us and for us.

In much the same way that James declares how faith is recognized through actions (c.f. James 2:8-26), John tells us that love is known through actions. And, like James, John even gives a contra-example (c.f. James 2:16-17). Just as faith doesn’t exist apart from action, love doesn’t exist apart from action. John asks, “But, if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?” (1 John 3:17 CEB). It’s our action that reveals the truth and genuineness of our love. In verse 17, love is a verb. “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech, but with action and truth” (CEB).

Now, Greek subjunctive verbs aren’t always easy to translate into English, and love is a present-active verb in the subjunctive mood. So, my Greek professor might argue that, because the present tense indicates the kind of action, and non-indicative moods (such as the subjunctive) have little to do with time, another possible translation of this would be, “Little children, let’s not continue to love with words or speech, but in action and truth” (my translation).

So, instead of this sounding like a suggestion, as most translations make it seem (let us not love…), it’s probably intended to be corrective of either incorrect or inadequate behavior, which fits well with the overall tone of First John. It’s not enough to love in word or speech because words are easy to say and let slip away. Love is recognized, known, and proved through action. This action of love is how we know that we belong to the truth. Our loving action also reassures our hearts in God’s presence.

Our hearts can be fickle, and sometimes we’re harder on ourselves than we ought to be. We can wonder and even worry about our own salvation. We can ruminate on questions like, Am I good enough? Do I really love God? Do I have saving faith? One thing of which we can be certain is that our salvation is never defined by our feelings about ourselves. For one, we’re often wrong about ourselves.

John tells us that, even if our hearts say we’re not good enough, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. When we lack confidence in our standing before God, we can have confidence despite our lack of confidence because of God’s greatness. Because of our confidence in God’s greatness, we shouldn’t listen when self-doubt needles its way into our minds.

Our actions also act as proof to ourselves that our standing before God is in a good place. Earlier in the chapter, John said, “Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous” (1 Jn. 3:7 CEB). When we do things that are righteous, and that can be any number of things, we are righteous. Now, John continued that thought by saying that those who practice sin belong to the devil. But it’s the same definition that Jesus gave us. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, we are known by our actions. John the Elder must have been a Methodist, because this is the practical divinity of John Wesley.

Look at Golde and Tevye again. When Tevye asked her if she loved him, she took a moment to consider the matter. She wasn’t sure and had to ask herself if she loved Tevye. And what did she do to find an answer to her their mutual question? She examined her actions toward him. “For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Golde’s actions toward her husband told her that she loved him. Tevye recognized that, too. That’s why he pointed his finger at her and declared, “Then you love me!” Tevye saw it, too. He saw Golde’s love for him in her actions. We can see our love for God and our love for others in our actions. And we can see our lack of love for God and for others in our lack of action. How can the love of God abide in us when we see a sister or brother in need but don’t care?

Now, a few people have mentioned that, after reading 1 John, they felt bad about not handing money out to people on street corners. If we tithe, then we have no reason to feel bad or let our heart condemn us. By giving to our church, we’re already supporting all kinds of ministry. And there is something to say about giving our resources responsibly. So, if we’re worried that someone might abuse what we give them on a street corner, then give to the church, and to local shelters, and to local food pantries, and to relief organizations that do things the right way. The Community Emergency Assistance Board helps people in Mount Vernon who are having financial difficulty, and they hold appointments here at our church. And that’s only on the money side of things. We can do a lot more than give our money. We can volunteer our time at a mission of the church, or volunteer with another organization.

I love working with kids, so I’m at the Thrive after-school program almost every weekday, even on my days off. I volunteer each Fall to work with students for a writing project. I run our youth group alongside the Simpsons. There are innumerable ways for us to show that we care, to put our love into action.

One of the more difficult verses here is verse 22, which says, “We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:22 CEB). It’s difficult because we’ve all asked for things and not gotten them. Now, this is not prosperity gospel where we can ask for that new Mercedes and God will deliver it to our driveway. Note what John says: we receive… because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. We receive whatever we ask of God when we learn to pray rightly, when we learn to pray for the things God wants for us. What are the commandment we’re told to keep? It’s actually one commandment in two, inseparable, parts. First, we believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Second, we love each other as he commanded us. The reason I say it’s one commandment is because John uses the singular to describe it: “This is his commandment…” (1 John 3:23 CEB).

When I look at John’s words to us, I can’t help but think that John the Elder had the same definition of belief as James. They were both disciples who walked with Jesus. They were both Elders of the church. They knew each other and had conversations about this stuff. Believe comes from the same root word in Greek as faith: (πιστεύω and πίστις). We need to believe—have faith—In Jesus and, according to James’ definition of faith/belief, that means our faith is active. When we see someone who lacks food or clothing, we do something about it. Belief is the first commandment John mentions. We believe, so we act like a person who believes by acting on our faith, our belief in Jesus Christ.

We also love each other as Jesus commanded us to love each other, which is an active kind of love. It’s interesting that First John uses the same example as James. If we don’t care when we see a person in need, how can the love of God, which does care about such matters, abide in us? Love is action. Love is what we Christians are supposed to do. Keeping the commandments keeps us in God, we abide in God by keeping them.

The parable of the vine in John 15 gives us a good idea of what Jesus meant about abiding—remaining—in God. I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper… Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you” (John 15:1, 4-12 CEB).

That’s a lot of remaining, and it highlights that we must be coworkers with Christ. There’s no excuse for Christians to not get our hands dirty.

Aside from our actions, how do we know that God remains in us? John tells us it’s through the Spirit that God has given to us. The Holy Spirit is the gift promised by Jesus after his resurrection. The Spirit is the guide that strengthens the community of believers and, clearly, the one who inspired John the Elder to write this letter.

John wrote this epistle as the last living disciple. These are his words to us: believers who are generations removed from himself. He reminds us that Christians believe and love, and both belief and love are exhibited, proved, and shown to exist through action. Our actions are where belief and love become real.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Repent | 3rd of Easter

Acts 3:12-19

12 Seeing this, Peter addressed the people: “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of our ancestors– has glorified his servant Jesus. This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, even though he had already decided to release him. 14 You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. 15 You killed the author of life, the very one whom God raised from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 His name itself has made this man strong. That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know. The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes.

17 “Brothers and sisters, I know you acted in ignorance. So did your rulers. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets: that his Christ would suffer. 19 Change your hearts and lives! Turn back to God so that your sins may be wiped away. (CEB)

Repent

Throughout the Season of Easter, the lectionary provides a text from the Acts of the Apostles where we would normally find a lesson from the Old Testament. While I’m somewhat critical of this—because it can suggest, incorrectly, that the New Testament is more important than the Old—I think one of the reasons for the shift is to focus on the implications of the resurrection of Jesus for the community of believers. Several of the texts from Acts are sermons of Peter, and this one is the second of Peter’s sermons in the book. So, in essence, I get to preach a sermon on a sermon.

Musicians get to do this all the time. You have Variations on A Theme by Hyden composed by Brahms, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis composed by Williams, and so on. And, any Star Wars fan who’s ever heard Mars, The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst knows where John Williams got his ideas for the Star Wars score. So, maybe I should have titled my sermon, Variations on a Theme by Peter.

First, it’s important that we understand the social context of Peter’s sermon. Just as I am a Christian speaking to an audience of Christians in a Christian worship setting, Peter was a Jew who is speaking to an audience of Jews within a Jewish worship setting. The reason why this is important is because Peter gets a little harsh with his audience. He accuses them of rejecting Jesus, of killing Jesus.

One of the more disgusting pieces of Christian history is that some of our European ancestors used Peters words as an excuse to murder Jews in retaliation for killing Jesus. Peter’s Christian context was Jewish. He wasn’t anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. He was a Jewish, Semitic Christian, and he would be horrified at how some Christians after the third and fourth centuries used his words to persecute his own people. Jesus, himself, was a Jewish man. There is nothing anti-Jewish or anti-Semiotic about Peter’s words.

Second, it’s important for us to understand the context of this text within the book of Acts because, obviously, verse twelve is not the beginning of the story. “Seeing this, Peter addressed the people…” (Acts 3:12a CEB).

And our first question is… Seeing what? What precipitated Peter’s sermon? Let’s back up and take a look. Acts chapter two tells us about the Day of Pentecost, which includes Peter’s first sermon. Then, at the end of chapter two, Luke gives us a little summary of how the Pentecost Christians ordered their life together as Easter People. By the time we get to chapter three, we have no idea how many days have passed since Pentecost.

Chapter three begins with Peter and John going into the Temple to pray during the established prayer time of 3:00 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, a man crippled from birth was being carried in so he could beg at the Beautiful Gate. When Peter and John walked by, he asked them for help. Peter simply told the man, “Look at us!” (Acts 3:4 CEB). The man looked at Peter and John expectantly, but Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6 CEB). Peter took the man’s hand, pulled him up, and the man’s feet and ankles became strong.

All of a sudden, this guy starts jumping. He doesn’t try out his newly-healed legs with baby steps. He walks around, leaping and praising God. Can you imagine the joy this man felt and how it spilled out of him?

All the people saw this man jumping and leaping, full of exuberance and shouting praises to God, and they recognized him as the same man who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate asking for money. They were filled with amazement and surprise. While the man clung to Peter and John, all the people rushed toward them at Solomon’s Porch, completely amazed at what they were seeing.

That’s what Peter saw. He saw the utter amazement and surprise written on the faces of the other Temple worshippers who had rushed together at Solomon’s Porch to see a crippled man jump and leap for joy and thanksgiving at being healed. And Peter asks, “You Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as if we made him walk by our own power or piety?” (Acts 3:12 CEB).

I think this is one of the reasons why Jesus picked Peter to lead the fledgling church. The dude could preach. Paul couldn’t preach worth a lick. His gift was in writing. (2 Corinthians 10:10). But Peter, when he stood up to preach, he held his audience captive. After he preached his first sermon at Pentecost, three-thousand people were baptized into the church. After this, his second recorded sermon in chapter three, it depends on how one translates the Greek, but the church either grew to five-thousand in number, or they grew by five-thousand in number. Did you know the early church was the first mega-church? It was a big, Jewish, Semitic, predominantly Aramaic-speaking mega-church.

The fact that Peter addresses his audience as “Israelites,” which is their God-given name as a people, shows that he meant to honor them as God’s people who have their identity in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the same time, he wonders at their surprise and amazement. First, he denies that the once-crippled man’s healing came by his or John’s own power or piety and immediately points to God’s glorification of Jesus—the same Jesus that the people handed over and denied before Pontius Pilate, the holy and righteous one they rejected and asked for a murder to be released in his place. They killed the author of life.

Now, so far, Peter’s speech sounds bleak, and more than a little accusatory. But, we should note that his words are full of shared grief, and he’s probably including himself. Peter says, “This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence” (Acts 3:13 CEB), and “You rejected the holy and righteous one” (Acts 3:14 CEB). Those words denied and rejected are the same word in Greek. The reason I say he’s speaking of a shared grief is because that word is the same word used about Peter when he denied knowing Jesus. “Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, ‘This man was with him too.’ But Peter denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I don’t know him!’” (Lk. 22:56-57 CEB). Peter was just as guilty as the people, and he knew it.

Peter grounded his sermon in the patriarchs of Israel by saying, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of our ancestors—has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13 CEB). The word in Greek for servant can also be used to refer to one’s immediate offspring: one’s child. It’s the same word used by Mary when she sang, “He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy” (Luke 1:54 CEB).

Then, Peter tells them that God raised Jesus from the dead, and he and John are witnesses of the resurrection. If you were wondering what John’s role in the story is, it’s probably to serve as the second witness to corroborate the claim Peter makes. Several Old Testament texts (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15) require two witnesses when bringing testimony against someone for a crime. But the same idea developed about any claim. If one person made a claim, it wasn’t enough to substantiate the claim. But if two witnesses agreed about a matter, it was enough (c.f. Matthew 18:16; John 5:31-32, 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1). John didn’t say anything, but his presence was required for Peter’s testimony about Jesus to be believed as true.

In a form of repetition similar to Hebrew poetry, Peter makes the same claim in three slightly different ways in verse 16. First, he says, “His [meaning Jesus’] name itself has made this man strong” (CEB). Second, he clarifies the first statement by saying, “That is, because of faith in Jesus’ name, God has strengthened this man whom you see and know” (CEB). Third, he summarizes the first two statements by saying, “The faith that comes through Jesus gave him complete health right before your eyes” (CEB). It wasn’t Peter of John who healed the crippled man, it was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Now that Peter has made his accusation and shown that the crippled man was healed in the name of Jesus whom God has glorified, Peter let his hearers off the hook in two ways. First, he told them that he knows they acted in ignorance, as did their rulers (c.f. vs.17). Then, he reminded them that the Messiah’s suffering was a fulfillment of God’s word as spoken through the prophets. The death of Jesus was bound to happen.

Not only did Peter let his brothers and sisters off the hook for their participation in Christ’s death, he shows them a way forward. He called them to repent, to change their hearts and lives and turn back to God so their sins could be forgiven.

The healing of the crippled man highlights a misunderstanding that we share with those who stood listening to Peter’s sermon. It’s a misunderstanding about something that is absolutely fundamental about our shared life with God. Brothers and sisters, our faith is often stuck in a kind of functional atheism in which we believe that sin and brokenness is the rule and, should God ever bother to speak or act, that would be the exception. But in an Easter world, and among an Easter people, the presence and power of God is as prevalent as night and day, sunshine and rain, wind and calm.

Do we see it? Do we see the mercy of God in our midst? I’ve seen it big and small ways: from healings from disease to the smile of a child eating a fresh cucumber for the first time and filling their hungry belly.

Peter also reminds us that, when we do see the workings of God in our world, our response must be more than astonishment and surprise. We must change our hearts and lives so that we can live into the healing and restoring work of God and participate in it. We, like Jesus, are God’s servants and God’s children. What is our response as Easter People?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Acceptable | Easter Day

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (CEB)

Acceptable

It isn’t always easy to learn something new, especially if the new thing goes against what you’ve always known. I remember when I was first started playing guitar, my Grandpa taught me to play the G chord a certain way. And I got comfortable playing G that way. Sometime later, someone told me to try it with different fingers. They said it would be easier to transition to several other chords, and I could make the changes faster.

I didn’t like it. It was difficult, uncomfortable for my hand, and it made my pinky hurt. It wasn’t how my Grandpa taught me to play a G chord. The new way was messing with what I had always known. But, as I kept practicing, I realize the person was right. If I played G the other way, switches to other chords were faster because my hand barely had to move. Now, I can play a G chord in a lot of different ways.

Learning something new is even more difficult when it goes against something that’s deeply ingrained within us. Especially if the old thing is something we KNOW is right and the new thing is something we KNOW is wrong. We’re liable to put a lot of energy into fighting the new thing rather than giving it honest consideration. That’s what happened to the Jerusalem Council, the full assembly of Israel’s elders, when the apostles came along doing weird new things: preaching, teaching, and healing in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, suggested that the Council let the apostles go after they were arrested. If their new thing was of human origin, it would fail just like all the other failed movements. But, if this new thing originated with God, then no one would be able to stop it. Instead, the elders of Israel might find themselves fighting God. The Council let the apostles live but had them beaten and told them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore. Most of them couldn’t accept the new thing God was doing.

Learning something new is what happened to Paul. You might remember that he was called Saul before he took the name Paul, and he used to hunt Christians down to arrest them. Acts 8:3 puts it this way: Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison” (CEB). Later, as he was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians and drag them as prisoners to Jerusalem, a vision of Jesus showed him that the new way was a God thing, and Saul needed to get on board with it. Within a few days, the man who had been breathing murderous threats against Christians was preaching the good news all over Damascus.

Peter had a lesson to learn, too. Now, note that this is the Christian-Peter; the leader-of-the-church-Peter; the Peter who was the reason people would set their sick friends and family members out in the streets in the hope that when Peter walked by, his shadow would touch them-Peter. This Peter still had a hard lesson to learn about the new thing God was doing.

You see, Peter was a faithful Jewish man, and he knew, to the core of his understanding of God’s ways, that salvation was for Jews. His Jewish faith also told him that Jews were not supposed to associate with Gentiles. He knew that as truth. Faithful living required that he have no association with Gentiles. But then, he had this weird vision. He was up on the roof of a house in Joppa when he saw heaven opened and a large linen sheet being lowered by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds. A voice told him to get up, kill, and eat. But Peter said, “Absolutely not, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Then, the voice told him, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This scenario happened three times, and left Peter bewildered. Then, three Gentile men who had been sent by the Centurion, Cornelius, showed up at the gate looking for him, and God told Peter to go.

You know what the first thing Peter said to the crowd of Gentiles gathered inside Cornelius’s house was? “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28 CEB).

Now, at this point, it doesn’t seem like Peter was convinced of any new thing, any serious challenges to the certainty of what he already knew. The way Peter puts it, all he knew for sure was that God told him he couldn’t call the Gentiles dirty. He was obviously ill-at-ease, and it’s a racial-ethnic kind of ill-at-ease.

If God had not specifically told Peter to go, there is no chance that Peter would have gone to the house of an officer in the Roman Legion. Rome had conquered the independent Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom and occupied their homeland less than a hundred years prior. You can almost hear the reluctance and distaste dripping from Peter’s lips when he says, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders.” <Deep Sigh> “However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean. For this reason, when you sent for me, I came without objection. I want to know, then, why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29 CEB).

Then, Cornelius told Peter his story, about an angel who visited him during his 3:00 prayers and said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayers, and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to him. Therefore, send someone to Joppa and summon Simon, who is known as Peter” (Acts 10:31-32a CEB). Cornelius told Peter that he sent for him immediately, and Peter was kind enough to come, and now, here they all were, ready to listen to what the Lord had directed Peter to say.

Peter’s message begins with himself. “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 CEB). Before this moment, it was inconceivable to Peter that Gentiles could become disciples of Jesus. But there he stood, in a house full of Gentiles, ready to preach the good news of Jesus Christ because God had led him there and showed Peter that God was doing something new.

The message was this: God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone and overpowering the devil. The disciples bore witness to the things Jesus did in Judea and Jerusalem. Then, Jesus was killed by crucifixion on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen by those who knew him in life, who ate and drank with him on a daily basis. Jesus commanded the apostles to preach and testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. And, everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins.

Even though it was contrary to what Peter had always known and held as faithful truth, Peter learned the new thing that God was doing, that people in every nation who worship God and do good are acceptable to God, even those who have no previous experience with Jesus, the Jewish faith, or what makes Jesus significant within it. It was unheard of! It was unimaginable! Throughout the whole of Acts 10, Peter’s long-held assumptions get replaced by God’s new thing.

We all have long-held habits and assumptions that we know, to the fullness of our conviction, are sacred and holy and right. With the same conviction, we know that those on the other side of those lines are sinful, unholy, and wrong, just like Peter thought of Cornelius and those of his household. We might even have Scripture to back up our positions, just like Peter did. But, when God moves outside of our interpretations of Scripture, when God decides to do something different, something like Easter, that new thing can turn our convictions and Biblical interpretations upside-down. Even the Scriptures tell us that God confounds human wisdom, so why should we be surprised, or affronted, when God proves our holy certainties false?

Our assumptions need adjusting from time to time, because God is not a prisoner of our assumptions. God is not constrained by what we think is right and holy. God acts. And when God acts, we’re often surprised—if not scandalized—by the things God does.

God took on human flesh and was born of a poor young virgin from some backcountry town? Most people had different ideas about God, believing God was too holy and set apart to ever do something so icky as becoming a human being.

Even the disciples rejected the idea that God’s Son would be killed by being crucified on a tree. They wanted to follow a victorious Messiah to restore the Kingdom of Israel, not a failure who would be killed. You might remember that Peter took Jesus aside a chewed him out for suggesting it.

And this resurrection thing: a mangled body, full of holes and a back flayed raw, with a chest cavity and heart pierced by a spear got up and walked around for forty days? He spoke to people, ate and drank with them, appeared to people inside of locked rooms?

In a day when the church is confronted with divisions of all kinds: race, ethnicity, beliefs about gun laws, abortion, human sexuality, immigration, war in the Middle East, to name only a few, it’s important for us to hear that no matter how many ways we try to tear ourselves apart, divide and separate from each other, and draw lines in the sand over issues, God continues to find ways to put us back together again. Peter came to realize that Jesus is Lord of All, and that’s a lesson we need to learn, too.

The resurrection of Jesus threw the doors of the church open wide—probably wider than we’re comfortable with. Sometimes we try to wrench them closed just a little more. But we are recipients of God’s Kingdom, not its doorkeepers. Resurrection means that whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable.

Now, we can try to qualify what’s meant by “does what is right,” but the comments in the text about Cornelius suggest it’s quite simple. Cornelius loved God enough to pray, and he loved his neighbors enough to give generously to meet their needs. He loved God, and he loved his neighbors. He did works of justice, he loved mercy, and he walked humbly. That’s what God finds acceptable.

Resurrection means that anyone who believes, anyone who trusts in Jesus, receives forgiveness of sins. The question is, can we learn that lesson as well as Peter?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay